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Colbert signs off with star-studded finale that strikes the right note

“The Colbert Report” finale could have easily turned into a funeral.

Instead, it was just plain fun. (Update at 5 p.m. Friday: A series high 2.48 million viewers tuned in to Comedy Central for the finale, which scored the highest key adult demo rating for non-football programming on cable Thursday night.)

Stephen Colbert knew all too well that Colbert Nation has been mourning the impending loss of its fearless leader who was stepping down after nine years of blowing enough hot air to turn Antarctica into Aruba.

Fans had been speculating that their pontificating, right-wing know-it-all might leave “The Colbert Report” in a body bag, given that Grimmy was listed as the final guest.

Once again, the Second City alum outsmarted us and achieved immortality.

Colbert shot the Grim Reaper during their “Cheating Death” chess match, setting the stage — a soon-to-be-crowded stage — for a memorable musical number (video at the end of this post).

The Northwestern University grad began singing the 1939 nostalgic tune “We’ll Meet Again,” the song that played as nuclear bombs went off at the end of “Dr. Strangelove,” in keeping with the night’s theme of finality.

It wasn’t long before his old “Daily Show” boss Jon Stewart emerged onto the set, followed by an army of famous friends bidding him farewell. From Bryan Cranston to Big Bird. Jeff Tweedy to Neil deGrasse Tyson. They just kept on coming. Cyndi Lauper. Tom Brokaw. A confused looking Charlie Rose. Bob Costas. Willie Nelson. Ken Burns. Andy Cohen. James Franco. Eliot Spitzer. Arianna Huffington. Chicago’s Tim Meadows, who holds the record for being the most frequent guest on “The Late Late Show” with Craig Ferguson, another late-night personality whose long run comes to an end this week.

Colbert, who used to come charging on stage like he’d just chugged a gallon of Red Bull, was uncharacteristically calm and sedate for much of the finale — and appropriately so. It’s as if he wanted to give viewers a reassuring glimpse of the man that would be waiting for them later next year, when he takes over the “Late Show” from David Letterman.

The blowhard Colbert still indulged in some of his trademark narcissism, patting himself on the back for his widespread influence on the world, a world he proudly “samed” over the last nine years. After all, another Bush governor is contemplating a run for the White House and we’re still sending troops to Iraq. But it was the real Colbert talking, too, when he said, “The truthiness is, all those incredible things people say I did [run for president, form a Super PAC, etc.] … None of that was really me. You, the Nation, did all of that. I just got paid for it.”

Recent episodes have been building up to Thursday’s big sendoff, giving fans a much-needed sense of closure. Colbert had made peace — make that love — with those godless killing machines known as bears. In a final round of “Formidable Opponent,” the winner of the torture report debate was the real Colbert; his bombastic alter ego disappeared into the ether in a moment rife with symbolism. Recurring segments like “Better Know a District” came full circle as Colbert revisited his first member of Congress, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Georgia). And in Wednesday’s penultimate episode, Colbert put on a yard sale to get rid of nine years’ worth of memorabilia, including a deeply discounted Michael Stipe, who also joined in during Thursday’s emotional sing-along.

Bill Clinton wasn’t there to harmonize in person, but he did send a tweet. After all, Colbert got him on Twitter.

The star-studded chorus also included video of “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan typing furiously while chained to a basement pipe. (Remember that Colbert kidnapped Gilligan during an episode last year and forced him to write more of the AMC hit series.)

After the song was over and Colbert hitched a ride to eternity on Santa’s sleigh, “Jeopardy” host Alex Trebek woke a sleeping Colbert. Still in a slumbering fog the latter asked, “Charlene?” — a reference to the girl he used to stalk, the muse for his purported ’80s hit “Charlene (I’m Right Behind You).”

The series finale was stocked with similar winks to longtime fans. Episode 1,447 ended up being a touching, heartfelt celebration of the man who proclaimed on “The Colbert Report’s” 2005 debut: “Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.”

On Thursday, he gave us all the feels.

To paraphrase a certain political pundit: The last show, his best yet.